Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Nicholas Kristof is back in Sudan and doesn't want us to forget. Today's column, Day 141 of Bush's Silence, describes the torment of a Magboula, a Sudanese woman. He wants us to take action, at least to put moral pressure on the government of Sudan. He ends as follows.
When Americans see suffering abroad on their television screens, as they did after the tsunami, they respond. I wish we had the Magboula Channel, showing her daily struggle to forge ahead through humiliation and hunger, struggling above all to keep her remaining children alive. If you multiply Magboula by 2.2 million, you get the reasons why we should care.
Am I doing anything with this posting? The magic of blogging is supposed to be that it spreads the word and that others will continue to spread the word. I hope so.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Fear of Freedom

A discussion of my previous posting on How liberals and conservatives make decisions — at least according to Dennis Prager led to a discussion of Irvin D. Yalom's text on Existential Psychotherapy. Yalom's book credits Soren Kierkegaard with having identified the four "ultimate concerns of life" — death, freedom, existential isolation, and meaninglessness.

The relevance here is the idea that liberals have been more successful than conservatives in confronting the existential meaning of freedom and the need to accept responsibility for having to make one's own decisions.

As a side note it looks like Yalom has a professionally designed web site. It's very nicely done. But since he's listed as an emeritus professor at Stanford, I would guess that his picture on the site (linked to on the right above) is not current.

Today's Dilbert is cute!

The image above is a reduced-size version of an image on the Dilbert site archive. The normal size presentation of this image on the Dilbert site is larger and easier to read.

This image is not stored on the Russ Abbott's Adventures in Blogland blog site. The Russ Abbott's Adventures in Blogland blog site contains only a pointer to the Dilbert image.

When your computer downloads this blog entry, it also downloads the Dilbert image from the Dilbert site and displays a reduced-size version that image in the context of this blog entry. Because this blog does not have an independent copy of this image, the operators of the Dilbert site have the power to prevent your computer from downloading that image at any time simply by making the image unavailable.

How liberals and conservatives make decisions — at least according to Dennis Prager

Dennis Prager, the conservative Jewish (and I mention that he is Jewish because it's a major part of his public persona) talk radio host has a column in today's LA Times, which to my amazement confirms what I see as a major difference between liberals and conservaitves. Liberals take responsibility for their own decisions; conservatives look to what they see as an authority for decisions they make. This is how Prager puts it.
[T]he great divide in values is not between those who believe in God and those who do not but between those who believe in a divine text and those who do not. …

Jews and Christians who believe that God revealed the Torah, for example, are far more likely to believe that marriage must remain defined as only between a man and woman, and cannot be redefined to include members of the same sex. They believe that people are not basically good, that human life, not animal life, is sacred (because humans, not animals, are created in God's image), and that murderers should be liable to the death penalty (the only law that is in all five books of the Torah is to put murderers to death).

On the other hand, Jews and Christians who believe that people wrote the Torah are far more likely to support a redefinition of marriage, to view human nature as basically good (and therefore more likely to ascribe human evil to outside influences), to be more receptive to seeing human beings as essentially another animal, and to oppose capital punishment for murderers.

After all, what people, not God, wrote thousands of years ago should hardly serve as a guide to life today — especially when one's heart argues against it. The heart feels compassion for gays, for animals and even for murderers facing execution. And the heart wants to believe that human beings are basically good.

But Jews and Christians who believe in a divinely revealed Bible do not trust the heart as a guide to doing the right thing (indeed, that Bible repeatedly warns us not to). That difference — do I listen to my heart or to what I believe is God's word? — explains most of the differences between right and left. Much more than whether one believes in God.
Amazing. I couldn't have said it better myself. Actually, if I had said it myself, I wouldn't have gone so far in making believers look as bad as I believe this makes them look.

Administration ordered terrorist alert raised

I hadn't heard about this. Did anyone else? USATODAY.com reported on May 10 that
The Bush administration periodically put the USA on high alert for terrorist attacks even though then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge argued there was only flimsy evidence to justify raising the threat level, Ridge now says.

Ridge, who resigned Feb. 1, said Tuesday that he often disagreed with administration officials who wanted to elevate the threat level to orange, or 'high' risk of terrorist attack, but was overruled. …

Ridge said he wanted to "debunk the myth" that his agency was responsible for repeatedly raising the alert under a color-coded system he unveiled in 2002.

"More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?' "

The Game Is Virtual. The Profit Is Real.

Last December I wrote about people buying and selling virtual property for real money on eBay and elsewhere. Today the New York Times updates that story.
A thriving market has sprung up in which players spend real-world cash to buy game currency or desirable items from other players. Transactions take place on eBay or on sites like gamingopenmarket.com or www.ige.com. Payments are made through PayPal and other online services. Players then log into the game and transfer the virtual goods or currency. …

While most game companies do not encourage the buying and selling of virtual goods, none have found a way to stop it, and most simply ignore it. Many players dislike the practice, saying that it gives those with more money an unfair advantage. But game companies are beginning to accept 'real-money trade' as a fact of life. Sony Online Entertainment recently began a service that allows players of its EverQuest II game to buy and sell items through a Sony site.

Linden Lab, based in San Francisco, has taken an even more open approach on the question of intellectual property rights. In November 2003, the company said it would permit Second Life subscribers 'to retain full intellectual property protection for the digital content they create.' …

But virtual merchants must often track the same vagaries found in real-world economics. Since Electronic Arts, the publisher of Ultima Online, made it easier for players to create castles, their value has fallen. And as new games like World of Warcraft draw users, Ultima Online is becoming "a dying market." …

With about 10 million people worldwide playing at least one of the 350 or so massively multiplayer online games, there is no shortage of income-producing possibilities for the imaginative. Steve Salyer, a former game developer, is now president of Internet Gaming Entertainment, a Los Angeles company that runs Ige.com. He estimates that players spend a real-world total of $880 million a year for virtual goods and services produced in online games - not counting sales of the games themselves, and monthly subscription fees, often around $10.

GeoURL & Blogwise

I just added GeoURL; click to find neighboring sites to the collection of icons at the bottom of the right sidebar.

GeoURL tracks web sites by location. To it looks for meta tags in the <head> parts of pages. If you click on GeoURL; click to find neighboring sites you will get a page of wed sites located near me.

Unfortunately, GeoURL doesn't yet have an interface to Google Maps.

On the other hand, , which lists blogs by keyword, has a beta version of a Google Maps - Blog Search for blogs by GeoURL. When you open it you get a local map of the place in England where Blogwise was created. To use their interace, navigate on the map and then click refresh to get a new list of local blogs.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Mean Median Surprise

Ivars Peterson in Science News Online has this interesting article about a phenomenon noticed by two Cal State professors.
Start with three numbers, say 5, 17, and 23. Their median (middle value) is 17. Find a fourth number so that the mean of all four is 17. This number must be 23 (4 x 17 - 5 - 17 - 23).

Repeat the process. The median of 5, 17, 23, and 23 is halfway between 17 and 23 (20). Find a fifth number so that the mean of all five numbers is 20. This number is 32 (5 x 20 - 5 - 17 - 23 - 23).

Repeat the process. The median of 5, 17, 23, 23, and 32 is 23. Find a sixth number so that the mean of all six is 23. The sixth number must be 38.

Continuing the process, you get the sequence 5, 17, 23, 23, 32, 38, 23, 23, 23, 23, . . . It becomes constant!
The same thing happens if you start with the numbers 6, 46, and 78. You get the sequence 6, 46, 78, 54, 66, 74, 96, 108, 102, 110, 96, 100, 195, 213, 96, 96, 96, . . .

It also happens with 13, 41, and 53. You get the sequence 13, 41, 53, 57, 71, 83, 67, 71, 102, 112, 89, 93, 71, 71, 71, . . .

'To our surprise, the same thing happened to every sequence we examined, with whatever three numbers we started,' Harris S. Schultz and Ray C. Shiflett report in the May College Mathematics Journal. Schultz is at Cal State Fullerton and Shiflett is at Cal Poly Pomona.

Schultz and Shiflet have dubbed these strings M&m sequences for 'mean and median.'

In these sequences, 'we calculate the median of the list of the first k values and choose the k + 1 value so that the mean of the first k + 1 values equals this median,' the mathematicians note. They offer an Excel spreadsheet for computing M&m sequences at http://members.cox.net/mathematics/mean-median.xls.

An M&m sequence is considered stable if it eventually reaches a constant value. The length of the sequence is the number of terms it takes to get to the repeating value for the first time. For example, the sequence starting with 6, 46, and 78 has a stable value of 96 and its length is 15.

The starting numbers don't have to be integers. The numbers 5, 5.5, and 33.9, for example, yield a sequence of length 73 and a stable value –4.65625.

Schultz and Shiflet conjecture that every M&m sequence is stable. In investigating the problem, the mathematicians have so far proved a variety of results that fall short of the ultimate goal but provide useful insights into what's going on.

It's obvious that any sequence that starts with three identical numbers is constant. It's also easy to show that if two of the values are the same, the M&m sequence has length 5. Various other intriguing patterns have also emerged.

Schultz and Shiflet have proved some stability results, particularly for sequences that start with 0, x, and x + 1, where x is greater than or equal to 1.

"Our hope is that readers will be motivated to study and explore these M&m sequences," Schultz and Shiflet write. The question remains: Is every M&m sequence stable?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Say No to New PATRIOT Spying Powers

The Senate Intelligence Committee is currently considering a draft bill that would not only renew the USA PATRIOT Act's worse provisions, but would also expand the government's power to secretly demand the private records of people who aren't suspected of any crime - without a judge's approval.

The Justice Department already has dangerously broad subpoena powers under the USA PATRIOT Act. PATRIOT Section 215 allows intelligence investigators to demand all kinds of private records about citizens who aren't suspected of spying or terrorism. PATRIOT Section 505, meanwhile, expanded the government's ability to use 'National Security Letters' to secretly obtain data on private online and financial activities without court oversight or probable cause.

The new bill not only makes these highly controversial provisions permanent, it marries the worst aspects of the two, allowing new 'administrative subpoenas' in national security cases that would let the government secretly demand all types of records without a judge's permission.

The Justice Department tried to get this super-charged subpoena power inserted into PATRIOT back in 2001. But even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Congress refused to allow this kind of unchecked surveillance power.
If you are a resident of Kansas, Utah, Ohio, Missouri, Maine, Nebraska, Georgia, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan, California, Oregon, Indiana, Maryland, or New Jersey, your senator is on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Contact them
at Electronic Frontier Foundation

We're blowing it in Afganistan

Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who has been doing development work in Kandahar since 2002 reports in a NY Times op-ed piece that we're blowing it again — this time in Afganistan.
What most Afghans have complained to me most consistently about is the inexplicable staying power of predatory, corrupt and abusive officials, on both the provincial and national level. Having waited patiently through the emergency loya jirga, or national assembly, in June 2002, the approval of a new constitution at a second loya jirga in December 2003, and the presidential election last fall, Afghans are at a loss as to why the Karzai administration and its American backers repeatedly put their confidence in unqualified and often criminal officials. By blindly allying themselves with some of the most destructive elements of Afghan society (over-armed, under-disciplined thugs), American forces paint themselves in the ugly colors of their Afghan proxies. The extortions, murders, unwarranted searches and unfair monopolies on lucrative work contracts are seen as integral components of American policy.

Somehow, in the three-and-a-half years that the United States has been here, it has not figured out how to avoid this trap. This incapacity for institutional learning is perhaps the most surprising failing on the part of the Army that I have witnessed. Each new contingent starts from scratch; knowledge of local tribal dynamics, geography, customs and personalities painstakingly acquired by the previous unit is never properly transferred. And so the same mistakes are made again and again.

Highhanded American behavior has also contributed fuel for the fire. The 200 to 300 Afghan men who work on the American base in Kandahar, to give a mundane example, wait several hours in the sun to be admitted through increasingly stringent searches. Why not stagger the arrivals of different teams of workers, to ease their discomfort and reduce the target that such a large group of people represents? The contractor Kellogg Brown & Root initially wanted its Afghan laborers on the base to work 12-hour shifts, with a half-hour for lunch and one half-day free a week. Such sweatshop labor practices are unworthy of the values the United States claims to represent. (Afghan workers did succeed in getting the workday reduced to eight hours.)

But inconveniences are one thing, atrocities quite another. On their own, the fatal beatings of probably innocent detainees and the use of religiously based sexual humiliation at the prison on the American base in Bagram would be sufficient pretext for troublemakers to provoke a riot, never mind the Newsweek report about desecration of the Koran.

Such behavior is not only a disgrace but also a serious national security risk. Our safety and survival depend increasingly on our ability to forge profound, cooperative relationships based in mutual comprehension with Muslim peoples. But when the United States can be plausibly depicted, by Pakistani operatives or Muslim extremists, as a country with little regard for the human dignity of Muslims, such friendships founder. The kind of behavior that has been documented in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib or Bagram presents a gift of inflammable tinder to the very extremists we claim to be fighting.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What about awareness

I wonder why listings of strengths or virtues — even when generated from a non-ideolgical perspective such as VIAstrengths.org - Positive Psychology and The Josephson Institue of Ethics - the Six Pillars of Character — never seems to include awareness as a strength or virtue.
The image is from Wellness Education Services - Department of Student Affairs, University at Buffalo. It's the first image that appears in a Google image search for awareness.

Destroying lives to save lives

William Saletan found an interesting contradiction in Bush's claimed reasons to oppose stem cell research using human embryos. In threatening to veto the bill recently passed in the House, Bush is reported by CNN to have said
'I made [it] very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money, to promote science which destroys life in order to save life, I'm against that.' … 'Therefore if the bill does that, I will veto it.'
But according to Saletan,
Bush and his spokesmen routinely argue that [the death penalty] is justified not because murderers deserve it, but because it's moral to take one life in order to save others. He doesn't say that Person A should be executed because Person A is a danger to society. He says that Person A should be executed because the execution will deter Person B from killing Person C.
I know that Bush cares so little about intellectual honesty that a conflict like this won't slow him down a bit. But I wonder if there are any intellectually honest proponents of his position who would be willing to engage this issue.

'Future' Reviews Human-Machine Connection

eWeek reports on the Future in Review (FiRe) conference recently held in San Diego. (The Future in Review website seems to be out of date, though!)
'Soon terabyte hard drives will be common, [Rick Rashid of Microsoft] went on; hard drives big enough to store every conversation you've ever had in your life, or to take a picture every minute, even while you're asleep.' He described a research project in Microsoft's Cambridge, England facility that is essentially a 'black box for humans.' Chock-full of sensors, accelerometers and motion detectors, it takes a picture every time something changes. It's being considered as a way of helping patients with non-severe memory loss, to let them keep and summarize memories at the end of the day. London police are even interested in using it to help solve crimes.

Regarding Rashid's second imminent breakthrough, he said that we are almost to 'the point at which LCD technology will be cheaper per square inch than whiteboards.' And when that happens, 'almost any surface becomes an input and output device' and, with small cheap projectors, 'any table, any wall, any surface [becomes] an input-output device.'

Why don't the Democrats adopt this message?

Thomas Friedman has a way of making things simple. And I don't think he oversimplifies. In his latest column he asks why our nation's business leaders are letting the Bush administration destroy our country.
America faces a huge set of challenges if it is going to retain its competitive edge. As a nation, we have a mounting education deficit, energy deficit, budget deficit, health care deficit and ambition deficit. The administration is in denial on this, and Congress is off on Mars. And yet, when I look around for the group that has both the power and interest in seeing America remain globally focused and competitive - America's business leaders - they seem to be missing in action. I am not worried about the rise of the cultural conservatives. I am worried about the disappearance of an internationalist, pro-American business elite.

Is there any company in America that should be more involved in lobbying for some form of national health coverage than General Motors, which is being strangled by its health care costs? Is there any group of companies that should have been picketing the White House more than our high-tech firms, after the Bush team cut the National Science Foundation budget by $100 million in 2005 and in 2006 has proposed shrinking the Department of Energy science programs and basic and applied research in the Department of Defense - key sources of innovation?

Is there any constituency that should be clamoring for a sane energy policy more than U.S. industry? Is there any group that should be mobilizing voters to lobby Congress to pass the Caribbean Free Trade Agreement and complete the Doha round more than U.S. multinationals? Should anyone be more concerned about the fiscally reckless deficits we are leaving our children than Wall Street?
Friedman also provides an answer: "in today's flatter world, many key U.S. companies now make most of their profits abroad and can increasingly recruit the best talent in the world today without ever hiring another American."

But most of us can't outsource our need for work. Most people are hurt by the problems Friedman outlines. Why can't the Democrats get this message — and get this message across. This is a very middle-of-the-road message, one that most people in the country would respond to. Are you listening Howard Dean?

Bloggers leading reform efforts in China

Nicholas Kristof has a Flash report on how bloggers (and he profiles one particular blogger) is exposing corruption and leading reform efforts in China. Kristof also has an op-ed column on the same subject: Death by a Thousand Blogs.

I suppose this isn't new, but it's interesting how easy it seems to be to use Flash as a reporting medium.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau

From Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau.
[Imagine 15 years from now asking your daughter who is home from law school what her classmates are like.]
  • They have amazing thinking abilities. They're not only faster and more creative than anybody she's ever met, but faster and more creative than anybody she's ever imagined.

  • They have photographic memories and total recall. They can devour books in minutes.

  • They're beautiful, physically. Although they don't put much of a premium on exercise, their bodies are remarkably ripped.

  • They talk casually about living a very long time, perhaps being immortal. They're always discussing their "next lives." One fellow mentions how, after he makes his pile as a lawyer, he plans to be a glassblower, after which he wants to become a nanosurgeon.

  • One of her new friends fell while jogging, opening up a nasty gash on her knee. Your daughter freaked, ready to rush her to the hospital. But her friend just stared at the gaping wound, focusing her mind on it. Within minutes, it simply stopped bleeding.

  • This same friend has been vaccinated against pain. She never feels acute pain for long.

  • These new friends are always connected to each other, sharing their thoughts no matter how far apart, with no apparent gear. They call it "silent messaging." It almost seems like telepathy.

  • They have this odd habit of cocking their head in a certain way whenever they want to access information they don't yet have in their own skulls -- as if waiting for a delivery to arrive wirelessly. Which it does.

  • For a week or more at a time, they don't sleep. They joke about getting rid of the beds in their cramped dorm rooms, since they use them so rarely.

It’s been a long time since the earth has seen more than one kind of human walking around at the same time. About 25,000 years if you believe that Cro-Magnons were critters significantly different from “behaviorally modern” Homo sapiens. About 50,000 years if your reading of the fossil evidence suggests you have to go back to the Neanderthals with their beetle brows and big teeth to discover an upright ape really different from us. The challenge of this book is that we may be heading into such a period again, in which we will start seeing creatures walk the Earth who are enhanced beyond recognition as traditional members of our species. We are beginning to see the outlines of such a divergence now.

Human Germline Genetic Modification (HGGM)

A new report from the Johns Hopkins Genetics and Public Policy Center says that modification of the Human Germline is closer than we think. Here are the first two paragraphs from the Executive Summary.
Germline genetic modification is possible in animals, but not yet in humans. If certain technical obstacles were overcome, human germline genetic modification (HGGM) could allow human beings to create permanent heritable genetic changes in their descendants by changing the genetic makeup of human eggs or sperm, or human embryos at the earliest stages.

For many decades, the technical barriers to HGGM have seemed insurmountable. Today, however, advances in human reproductive technologies, stem cell science, and animal genetic modification have brought the possibility of HGGM much nearer than it has been before. The Genetics and Public Policy Center believes it is time for renewed consideration of this controversial subject. This report, Human Germline Genetic Modification: Issues and Options for Policymakers, analyzes the scientific, legal, regulatory, ethical, moral, and societal issues raised by genetic modification of the human germline, provides data about the American public’s views about HGGM, and explores possible policy approaches in this area.

Monday, May 23, 2005


A friend sent me this joke.
A wealthy old lady decides to go on a photo safari in Africa, taking her faithful aged poodle Cuddles along for the company.

One day the poodle starts chasing butterflies. Before long, Cuddles discovers that she's lost. Wandering about, she notices a leopard heading rapidly in her direction with the intention of having lunch. The old poodle thinks, "Oh, oh! I'm in deep doo-doo now!"

Noticing some bones on the ground close by, she settles down to chew on the bones with her back to the approaching cat. Just as the leopard is about to leap the old poodle exclaims loudly, "Boy, that was one delicious leopard! I wonder if there are any more around here?" Hearing this, the young leopard halts his attack in mid-strike, a look of terror comes over him, and he slinks away into the trees. "Whew!" says the leopard, "That was close! That old poodle nearly had me!"

Meanwhile, a monkey who had been watching the whole scene from a nearby tree, figures he can put this knowledge to good use. So off he goes. But the old poodle sees him heading after the leopard and figures that something must be up.

The monkey soon catches up with the leopard, spills beans, and strikes a deal for himself with the leopard. The young leopard is furious at being made a fool of and says, "Here, Monkey, hop on my back and see what's going to happen to that conniving canine!"

Now, the old poodle sees the leopard coming with the monkey on his back and thinks, "What am I going to do now?", but instead of running, the dog sits down with her back to her attackers, pretending she hasn't seen them yet, and just when they get close enough to hear, the old poodle says: "Where's that damn monkey? I sent him off an hour ago to bring me another leopard!"

Don't mess with old farts. Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill! Bullshit and brilliance only come with age and experience!

Google's My Search History

Another new service from Google. I found about about it in an email to "Google Friends" of last week that I'm just getting around to reading. The following is from the Google - My Search History Help page.
Ever find what you're looking for with Google, then promptly forget what you found? If so, you'll enjoy My Search History, a new service on Google Labs which lets you view and manage your search history from any computer via 'My Search History' links in the upper-right corner of your Google home page and search results pages.

My Search History shows you all the searches you've done on Google and the search results you've clicked on, and presents this information in ways we think are most useful. If you don't remember an exact search query, for instance, but you do remember when you did the search, you can use My Search History's calendar feature to check the searches you did on a given day and navigate to any of them with a single click. Full-text search over your history means you can easily find any search query or results page. We also show you related history over time; you can review everything Google has ever shown you about 'apples', 'bass fishing' or 'the wizard of oz,' for instance, by clicking the 'Related history' link next to any search term when it appears.
You have to sign up before the service starts keeping track of your searches. It also has a pause button if you want to do searches that you don't want it to remember. The Help page discusses privacy issues in more detail.

Clatronic atoms: Programmable matter

From the Pittsburg-Post Gazette.
'Programmable matter' one day could transform itself into all kinds of look-alikes. …

Interacting with a faintly glowing replica of a person might seem a little creepy, Bryant [one of the researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University] admitted. Then again, 'I'm sure people of 200 years ago would be pretty creeped out if you told them about radio and television.'

Each of the individual robots comprising these people or shapes would be a 'claytronic atom,' or catom. Likely spherical in shape, a catom would have no moving parts. Rather, it would be covered with electromagnets to attach itself to other catoms; it would move by using the electromagnets to roll itself over other catoms.

The catoms' surfaces would have light-emitting diodes to allow them to change color and photo cells to sense light, allowing the collective robot to see. Each would contain a fairly powerful, Pentium-class computer."
(See also www.post-gazette.com/downloads/20050516jh_claytronics.pdf.)

And in a related story from Wired News: Eggheads Invent Tele-Petting
Researchers have developed a cybernetic system to allow physical interaction over the internet. The system allows touching and feeling of animals or other humans in real time, but it's first being tried out on -- chickens.

Amnesty International USA: Film Festival

From Aslan.
Amnesty International Film Festival

MAY 24-29, 2005

7920 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046

General Admission $10
West Hollywood Residents $8
Amnesty International Members $8
Students, Seniors & Disabled $6

Protect free speech

American Civil Liberties Union:: "For more than a decade, numerous members of Congress have tried to amend the U.S. Constitution to give the government the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the American flag. We have fought back hard with coalitions of veterans, religious leaders and other Americans who believe that such a constitutional amendment would undermine the very principles for which the American flag stands.

Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has strongly opposed the proposed amendment. 'The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous,' he said. 'I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will be flying proudly long after they have slunk away.' "

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Tell a joke; go to jail

I've been away at conferences this week. Early in the week I flew to Illinois. After returning, I immediately left again, this time for Lake Arrowhead. Both conferences were about complex systems. The reason for this blog post, though, is much less serious.

On my way through the security screening system at the airport, I saw a sign that warned passengers that joking with the security personnel about the possibility of bringing a bomb on the plane is a federal crime punishable by prison time.

I wonder if I would have gotten in trouble had I attempted to take a picture of that sign. I now wish I had taken my camera out and tried.

Science and religion

The current issue of tricycle magazine includes an interview with Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton. She is asked what roles she thinks science and religion should play. In her answer she says that science can tell us about how things work and that religion addresses questions of value. Her actual answer is a bit more complicated, but since this was an interview, it was not intended as a polished presentation. I would like to comment on this basic split, with which I agree.

Before doing that, I would like to clarify what I mean by the word belief. One nice definition of belief is any cognitive content held as true. (See, for example, onelook.com.) From this perspective the word belief refers to something we accept as true about the world, and presumably something with some empirical content. This definition is along the same lines as the definition of knowledge as true belief.

Thus in this context, belief is not meant to convey what is often referred to as a religious belief but some proposition about the (material) world that presumably has some reasonable way of being falsified.

With this definition, the distinction Pagels makes can be summarized as follows.
  • The realm of science is beliefs (and again, this is not to be confused with what we often refer to as religious beliefs).
  • The realm of religion is values.
I think that's a nice distinction, and I agree with it. I would also take the next step, namely that these two systems (religion and science) should not invade each other's territories — except in one minor detail.

  • Other than intellectual honesty, science should be value free.
  • Other than science, religion should be belief free.
In other words, the only value relevant to science is intellectual honesty, and the only beliefs relevant to religion should be the beliefs uncovered by the progress of science.

In particular, religion should ground its development of values on two pillars: the truths about the world developed by scientific investigations and our experience of ourselves as human being. The very notion that I have taken so much pain to avoid, i.e., religious belief, should not exist.

To clarify to the point of inanity, I would not use the term belief for something like: I believe in the principle of human dignity. Instead, I would say something like: I accept as fundamental the principle of human dignity. I would reserve the term belief for falsifiable propositions about the world.

Flash Bubblewrap


Thanks to Jochen Fromm who runs the CAS-Group

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Lincoln would be embarassed.

I have just returned home from a conference on complex systems at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana. The conference was great; the hotel at which I stayed was terrible, and I warn everyone to stay away.

The hotel is called the “Historic Lincoln Hotel.” When I arrived at the airport Sunday evening, I should have know there was a problem I asked the person at the information desk about getting from the airport to the hotel. She volunteered that since the hotel has been taken over by new management, it has gone downhill. As it turns out, she was quite right. (The Historic Lincoln web site says that "Jay Bhaghavan Inc., purchased the hotel in July 2001." I believe that this is the new owner that the airport person was referring to.) Since I had a reservation, I decided to chance it. It was my mistake. Management was arrogant, and the staff was poorly trained and ignorant. Here is one example.

I called the hotel from the airport to find out the best way to get there. (The information person let me use the airport phone for this. I was generally positively impressed with Champagne-Urbana. It has a very pleasant small-town feeling about it.)

The clerk at the hotel told me he had no idea where the airport was. Since the entire Champagne-Urbana area is very small it’s hard to believe that anyone would not know where the airport was. It’s even more surprising that a hotel would allow a clerk to be on duty in the evening and not know where the airport is.

The clerk finally told that it didn’t matter; the hotel had a policy of reimbursing guests for transportation to and from the airport. He told me just to take a cab, which I did.

The next morning I asked for my reimbursement. (It was an $8 cab ride, to which I added a $2 tip. This really is a small town.) The Monday morning clerk told me she was too busy to deal with it and that I should come back later.

I returned Tuesday morning. This time the clerk told me that she couldn’t give me my $10 back until checking with management—and that I should come back later.

Tuesday night, the clerk told me that he had no instructions to give me $10 and that I should try again Wednesday morning.

I checked out Wednesday morning, as planned. The clerk told me that she still had no instructions from management about my reimbursement and that I should come back later.

I actually went to the trouble to come back at lunch time to see what would happen next. As one might expect, I was told that management had still not responded. But I was in luck, the manager was eating her lunch in her office and would be willing to talk to me.

After about a 15 minute wait, the manager deigned to come out to the lobby to see me. She told me that it wasn’t her fault that she hadn’t responded. Perhaps the clerk hadn’t asked the question correctly. I wasn’t quite sure where the communication breakdown occurred.

The manager asked me if I had a receipt from the cab company. I said that I didn’t but that the Sunday night clerk would vouch for my story. It didn’t matter.

As the discussion ensued, it turned out that a receipt wouldn’t have mattered anyway because I used the wrong taxi company. The clerk didn’t tell me which taxi company to use, so I use the one recommended by the airport information person. It turns out that this was the wrong one and that the hotel provides reimbursement for only a specific taxi company.

I suggested that the hotel was not treating me, its guest, very intelligently and that the $10 it was saving would probably not make up for the future business it was losing. I hope that anyone reading this will help make my prediction of a loss of future business come true.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Is this really going on in our Air Force Academy

A NY Times editorial discusses proselytizing of academy students.
An authorized investigation by the Yale Divinity School and local news reports documented numerous instances of pressure on cadets to adopt Christian beliefs and practices. Such pressure came from dozens of faculty members and chaplains, and even the football coach, with his 'Team Jesus Christ' banner.

One chaplain instructed 600 cadets to warn their comrades who had not been born again that "the fires of hell" were waiting. Pressure to view "The Passion of the Christ" was reported, extending to "official" invitations at every cadet's seat in the dining hall. Nonevangelicals complained of bias in the granting of cadet privileges and of hazing by upper-class superiors, who made those who declined to attend chapel march in "heathen flights." …

[T]he academy's remedial program of religious toleration is running into resistance. … [The Air Force's chief chaplain] had segments [of a multidenominational educational videotape] cut out on such non-Christian religions as Buddhism, Judaism and Native American spirituality.

Capt. MeLinda Morton, a campus chaplain charged with helping to fix the problem, was thoroughly disheartened by the response. She warned that the altered video program would do little to cure what remained "systemic and pervasive" proselytizing. The captain, a Lutheran minister, was removed last week as executive officer of the chaplain office.
Here's the NY Times news story. And here's the USA today news story.

Sun desperate?

The New York Times reports that
Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, and his counterpart and onetime archenemy at Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, took the stage in a hotel conference room [in Palo Alto on May 14] to report on their efforts to make their software programs communicate. The collaboration was announced a year ago in the wake of the landmark settlement to Sun's antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft. …

The alliance has been developed in the last year by teams led by Bill Gates, Microsoft's co-founder and chief software architect, and Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's chief technology officer. The first step is a specification called Web Single Sign-On, creating interconnecting systems for establishing security privileges, known as authentication. The instructions are available now for software developers and will begin to appear in products later this year.

Next month the companies will begin a more ambitious joint effort aimed at letting programmers write software that communicates between the .Net programming environment from Microsoft and the Java software environment of Sun.

That the companies have a genuine commitment to the idea was underscored by the fact that Microsoft will be a major sponsor this year at Sun's annual JavaOne conference for software developers.
Sun is desperate to survive. Why is Microsoft interested in helping it? Sun does have a major part of the server market—which Microsoft has long coveted. Perhaps this is Microsoft's way of worming its way in. I'm surprised by their subtlety, but I guess even the devil can speak sweetly when the situation calls for it.

Call My GPS Virtual Cell

Slate's William Saletan has been writing articles under the heading human nature Science, technology, and society. His latest discusses the use of GPS ankle bracelets to replace incarceration.
Last month in Ohio, a Hamilton County commissioner told the Cincinnati Enquirer that GPS was an 'electronic jail.' 'You just plug in the coordinates of the places they're allowed to go' and 'the hours they're supposed to be at work and the hours they're supposed to be at home,' he said. But any system that lets you go home or to a regular workplace is a better deal than jail. Johnson County, Iowa, offers GPS to inmates applying for work release so that more applications can be granted. When the Associated Press asked a paroled burglar in Georgia about the GPS device he wears to work, he pointed out that it's an improvement on the nine years he spent behind bars.
Saletan points out that
[l]awmakers promote GPS as high-tech medievalism, a way to get tough on perverts who can't be kept in jail. But the economics of the "offender-monitoring industry" tell a different story. Most jurisdictions are buying GPS not to confine criminals, but to release them. …

Visit the home pages of the major GPS firms and you'll see what's up. "For just a fraction of the cost of incarceration, you can reach your ultimate goal of public safety," says Pro Tech Monitoring. On iSECUREtrac's list of "Applications/Solutions," sex offenders rank third. The top two advertised applications are "Budget Concerns" and "Prison Overcrowding." The same two items head the list at BI Incorporated. "The average cost of keeping an inmate in jail is approximately $100 per day," observes iSECUREtrac. "Solving a situation like this normally requires increased funding, but increased funding usually means raising taxes, and raising taxes is rarely a popular political response." BI adds, "By sentencing 100 offenders to alternative sanctions rather than jail or prison, agencies can significantly decrease their spending."

This is the pitch law-enforcement officials are getting all over the country. Run a newspaper search and you'll find scores of back-page articles about this or that county looking at GPS to solve a budget or jail-crowding problem. In these articles—as opposed to front-page stories about hunting down child rapists—politicians hem and haw to avoid looking soft on crime.
Saletan's articles also have pointers to other news reports in the field for technology and society. Saletan does a good job both in his own articles and in keeping of with the news.

Friday, May 13, 2005

IBM backs Firefox in-house

ZDNet reports that
IBM backs Firefox in-house

IBM is encouraging its employees to use Firefox, aiding the open-source Web browser's quest to chip away at Microsoft's Internet Explorer. …

By supporting Firefox internally, IBM is also furthering its commitment to open-source products based on industry standards, said Brian Truskowski, chief information officer at IBM.

"This is a real good example of walking the talk when it comes it comes to open standards and open source," Truskowski said.

Because Firefox is based on industry standards--as opposed to proprietary technology--IBM has some "comfort" that it will interoperate well with third-party products, Truskowski said. By contrast, Microsoft's Internet Explorer uses some proprietary technology, such as ActiveX for running programs within a browser.

"What I will avoid is anything that is proprietary in nature," Truskowski said.

The company is training its help-desk staff on Firefox and certifying that internal applications will work with the browser, he said.

Truskowski expects that Firefox will ultimately end up costing IBM less than IE because the company can use open-source additions to Firefox. "I hope in making a small investment up front, I can leverage that innovation going forward," he said.

Stacy Quandt, an analyst at the Robert Frances Group, said that IBM's endorsement of Firefox internally aligns with the company's strategy of backing open-source products based on standards. It may also give other companies reason to "pay attention to" Firefox and see it as an alternative to Internet Explorer.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Personality Disorders

The bulk of an op-ed piece ostensibly about John Bolton discussed similarities and differences in the personalities of
high-ranking business executives, psychiatric patients, and criminals with a history of mental health problems.

[T]he business population was as likely as the prison and psychiatric populations to demonstrate the traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder: grandiosity, lack of empathy, exploitativeness and independence. They were also as likely to have traits associated with compulsive personality disorder: stubbornness, dictatorial tendencies, perfectionism and an excessive devotion to work.

But there were some significant differences.

The executives were significantly more likely to demonstrate characteristics associated with histrionic personality disorder, like superficial charm, insincerity, egocentricity and manipulativeness.

They were also significantly less likely to demonstrate physical aggression, irresponsibility with work and finances, lack of remorse and impulsiveness. …

Take a basic characteristic like influence … Add to that a smattering of egocentricity, a soupçon of grandiosity, a smidgen of manipulativeness and lack of empathy, and you have someone who can climb the corporate ladder and stay on the right side of the law, but still be a horror to work with. Add a bit more of those characteristics plus lack of remorse and physical aggression, and you have someone who ends up behind bars.

Swedish teenager a menace

The ACM summarizes a report from the NY Times.
A 2004 penetration of a Cisco Systems network … [appears] to be one salvo in an extensive series of breaches that demonstrate how easy it is for even sophisticated Internet-connected computers to be compromised. … Surveillance software installed on the University of Minnesota computer network by security investigators last May revealed the network was being used to launch hundreds of Internet attacks, and about half of more than 100 attempted break-ins over a two-day period were successful. A nearly year-long probe into attacks on computer systems … has yielded a Swedish teenager as the primary suspect.
Imagine what trouble we would be in if someone were serious about this.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Pope and AIDS

A friend recently remarked on the difference between religious law and secular law: the former being what she called backward looking (looking to an authority as the basis for the law), and the latter being forward looking (looking to the consequences as the basis for the law). This distinction comes out fairly clearly in an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof. His last paragraph includes the following.
[I]f Pope Benedict wants to ease human suffering, then there's one simple step he could take that would save vast numbers of lives. He could encourage the use of condoms, if not for contraception, then at least to fight AIDS. That choice between obeying tradition and saving lives is stark, and let's all pray he'll make the courageous choice.
Obeying tradition is backward looking; considering the consequences of the no-condom rule is forward looking.

In discussing this issue, I started to wonder how the Catholic church got itself into this position with respect to sex. I suggested that perhaps the Catholic church's position on sex is that it is ok if one intends to procreate, but not otherwise. But I was reminded that the Catholic church approves of the "rhythm method" of birth control.

So sex is apparently ok even if one is intentionally attempting to avoid procreation. So now I'm confused about the basic philosophy. Is it really a claimed distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" means of avoiding procreation that makes the difference? Is sex ok according to the Catholic church even if one is attempting to avoid procreation while having it as long as one is using "natural" methods to avoid procreation?

But what does natural mean? Certainly counting days is not something we were born doing? That's a pretty deliberate act. It's the sort of deliberation that can get one convicted of conspiracy in other circumstances. Typically in moral issues, it's the thought that counts. Why not here? So in what way is that natural?

It seems to me that it would be very difficult to make a principled distinction between natural and unnatural means of avoiding procreation while having sex. So now I'm confused about what the basic philosophy of the Catholic church is toward sex.

Also, what is the Catholic church's position with respect to vasectomy — and sex afterwards. What about the removal of a woman's ovaries? What if she has (or doesn't have) ovarian cancer? What about sex afterwards. What about simply having one's tubes tied?

Google should provide free web hosting

In a previous post I mused about Google's strategy. It now occurs to me that Google would do well to provide a free hosting service.

Consider the fact that Google apparently attempts to cache all the pages it scans. It's hard to believe, but isn't this an attempt to copy the web? If Google is doing that anyway, why not simply host the web? It would certainly make Google's web crawling task much easier. In addition, web developers who want to appear in a Google search would be encouraged to use the free service since sites hosted by Google would presumably be sure to be indexed.

If Google became the host for a significant portion of the web, that would certainly provide a platform for whatever strategy it wants to implement. It would also make its web accelerator service a lot simpler!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Send those antioxidants to your mitochondria

According to Science News Online
Peter S. Rabinovitch of the University of Washington in Seattle and his colleagues genetically engineered mice to overexpress a gene responsible for making the antioxidant called catalase. …

[T]he team altered some of the mice so that the extra catalase went … into mitochondria, the cell's energy-producing organelles. Mitochondria produce most of an organism's free radicals as a side effect of converting food into energy. …

[A]nimals that guided catalase to mitochondria lived significantly longer than normal mice, adding about 5 months to their normal 3-year life spans.

Google's strategy: make the web the desktop

Google has just announced its Web Accelerator
Google Web Accelerator is an application that uses the power of Google's global computer network to make web pages load faster. Google Web Accelerator is easy to use; all you have to do is download and install it, and from then on many web pages will automatically load faster than before.
Google now offers an email service, a mapping service (including satellite views), and many others — besides search. It is amazing to me that it can afford to offer more than 2 GB of storage for emails. I'm surprised they haven't yet offered free general file storage. It seems like they are attempting to move people away from their own desktops and to the Google system as their home. The Web is certainly a good place to call home. Most people live there anyway. The challenge Google faces is to make the web interface one that people can live with. There have been rumors that Google will develop its own browser. The biggest challenge is the awkwardness of html and related web technology. It just isn't up to real computing. Will Google attempt to define a new applet-like or flash-like plugin that will support more sophisticated computing?

Mathematics and Narrative

An interesting conference .
Over the course of the last century, mathematics has become increasingly isolated from the culture at large. Despite enormous advances, and its central role in science and technology, the language of mathematics and its problems became so esoteric as to be completely inaccessible to outsiders. To make things worse, professional mathematicians frowned upon any outsider, however qualified, dealing with any aspect of their science. The consequence of this gap in communication has been the impoverishment of both mathematical discourse and the general culture.

However, the past few years have witnessed the beginnings of a change – and it is this that motivates our meeting. An unprecedented number of works, both fiction and non-fiction, have appeared that take their subjects from the world of mathematics. At the same time, scholars in the social sciences and humanities are showing increasing interest in exploring connections between mathematics and its cultural and historical setting. In all these, the narrative mode plays a crucial part.

On Mykonos, we hope to make progress in exploring the abundance of possibilities latent in the application of narrative to mathematics, both as a means of disseminating knowledge and as a cognitive tool for understanding mathematics itself.
Referred from the blog 3quarksdaily.

Education in America

Thomas Friedman writes:
I just interviewed Craig Barrett, the chief executive of Intel, which has invested millions of dollars in trying to improve the way science is taught in U.S. schools. (The Wall Street Journal noted yesterday that China is graduating four times the number of engineers as the U.S.; Japan, with less than half our population, graduates double the number.)

In today's flat world, Mr. Barrett said, Intel can be a totally successful company without ever hiring another American. That is not its desire or intention, he said, but the fact is that it can now hire the best brain talent 'wherever it resides.'

If you look at where Intel is making its new engineering investments today, he said, it is in China, India, Russia, Poland and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia and Israel. While cutting-edge talent is still being grown in America, he added, it's not enough for Intel's needs, and not enough is being done in U.S. public schools - not just to leave no child behind, but to make sure that the best students and teachers are nurtured and rewarded.

Look at the attention Congress has focused on steroids in Major League Baseball, Mr. Barrett mused. And then look at the attention it has focused on science education in minor-league American schools.

Inviting all time travelers

The NY Times reports on a convention organized by MIT students which they hope will attrack time travelers from the future.
Suppose it is the future - maybe a thousand years from now. There is no static cling, diapers change themselves, and everyone who is anyone summers on Mars.

What's more, it is possible to travel back in time, to any place, any era. Where would people go? Would they zoom to a 2005 Saturday night for chips and burgers in a college courtyard, eager to schmooze with computer science majors possessing way too many brain cells?

Why not, say some students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who have organized what they call the first convention for time travelers.

Actually, they contend that theirs is the only time traveler convention the world needs, because people from the future can travel to it anytime they want.

"I would hope they would come with the idea of showing us that time travel is possible," said Amal Dorai, 22, the graduate student who thought up the convention, which is to be this Saturday on the M.I.T. campus. "Maybe they could leave something with us. It is possible they might look slightly different, the shape of the head, the body proportions."
What is so attractive about this idea is that it takes the possibility of time travel — which we may figure out how to do — and asks what we could do now to look for evidence that people had actually figured it out. The whole article is amusing.

Support DMCA Reform - Help Pass HR 1201

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is collecting support for a bill that would help reduce the DCMA restrictions.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has been wreaking havoc on consumers' fair use rights for the past seven years. Now Congress is considering the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act (DMCRA, HR 1201), a bill that would reform part of the DMCA and formally protect the 'Betamax defense' relied on by so many innovators.

HR 1201 would give citizens the right to circumvent copy-protection measures as long as what they're doing is otherwise legal. For example, it would make sure that when you buy a CD, whether it is copy-protected or not, you can record it onto your computer and move the songs to an MP3 player. It would also protect a computer science professor who needs to bypass copy-protection to evaluate encryption technology. In addition, the bill would codify the Betamax defense, which has been under attack by the entertainment industries in the 'INDUCE Act' last year and the MGM v. Grokster case currently before the Supreme Court. This kind of sanity would be a welcome change to our copyright law.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Web sites

I'm traveling again and haven't had time to do any blogging. This evening, I should be working on a presentation I'm scheduled to give in less than 2 weeks. That's a good excuse to blog.

I just ran into two interesting web sites:

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is a serious site about transhumanism.

is about what it says.